Monday, April 06, 2009

What'dya Think

She came in with her parents, they found a table at a very busy food court. She was carrying her lunch, they got her seated and then left, each in a different direction. She slowly tucked into her lunch occasionally glancing around her. I'm terrible with ages but I'd guess that she'd be between 8 and 10. She attempted to make no contact or conversation with anyone, she simply quietly ate and looked around.

She was cute as hell, Down Syndrome and all.

I didn't notice her at first. Joe kept glancing off in her direction and finally I asked what he was looking at. He was reluctant to say but finally said, "A couple has left their daughter with Down Syndrome alone at at table. They've been gone awhile now." That was when I turned to see her.

We both agreed that we didn't know how to 'see' what we were seeing. We don't have kids, haven't raised kids, and have never taken kids to a food court. So, I want your help with the following questions ...

at what age is it ok to leave a typical child alone in a food court

if she is skillful, like this little girl seemed to be, is it ok for a child with a disability to be left alone so young

OK, I know the world is dangerous, but I also know that paranoia isn't a healthy way to live your life. Or, is it? A wee bit of paranoia surely can't be a bad thing. After all, WE noticed her there alone, so ... wouldn't a preditor have noticed the same thing.

how do you determine when it's ok for your child to experience and experiment with independence

how do you cope with your own fears ... she wasn't our child and we were sweating

So, I'm in the air today flying home from Vancouver, I'm going to be thinking about these things all the way home. I'll be curious to compare notes with you all on my return.


Nikki said...


I have a child with Down syndrome and I can tell you that chronological age doesn't support social and emotional age, and it all depends on maturity.language ability, most of our children do not speek well or clear, for along time, and so forth. But even at age 8 chronologically, I would never leave a typical child in a food court more less a child with Down syndrome.

It is my opinion that this is very neglectful on the parents disability or not !!!! It was easier to dump the child off so they can shop. And that is wrong.

We live in a world of pedifiles, convicts, and drug dealers, people may not wish to look at it that way, but it's true. What if this child were lurd to another place in the mall or abducted? Then what? Children can not articulate between good and evil, and they can not read between the lines between friend and foe.

So your not off your rocker, it was wrong, wrong, and dead wrong.

Spinningfishwife said...

I live in the UK. I would never leave my kids at age 8 alone in a big anonymous place like a mall or food court. My daughter is seven and I let her have a lot of freedoms, but that wouldn't be one of them.
My son is 12 and I would leave him, or with his sister. He's a responsible lad ...but even then he'd have his cell phone and strict instructions as to what and what not to do.
And I'd only do it if I was a solo parent and needed to do something alone, though I can't think what would be that essential. two parents? If they wanted to shop alone they could take turns, surely. Neither of my kids are disabled, btw.
So what did you and Joe do? I've hung around public spaces to check that young kids on their own got reunited with their (usually frantically seeking) parents.

Anonymous said...

at what age is it ok to leave a typical child alone in a food court

I have a typical daughter who will be 11 in August and I wouldn't leave her alone on the food court. She might sit alone with her Nintendo DS light while I select and pay for the food but she'd never eats alone. At that I would be watching her from the pay que,etc.
I would never go off shopping and leave her on the food court alone....NEVER!
If I needed to go shopping and she didn't want to come with me I'd leave her at home with Dad.

My daughter is very mature for almost 11. She is asking to do things on her own or should I say without me but always with her friends of the same age.

Teaching independence is a work in progress. For example I took her and two of her friends to the park on Friday. I threw a watchfull eye on them from a distance.
My daughter asked if I'd walk way behind them or way in front of them so people thought they were on their own! LOL!

She asked if she could go to the cinema in the afternoon over the Easter break with her friends only.
We have agreed that I'll drop them to the cinema, have a tea outside and wait till the movie is over. Then we'll all go to the food court.
Its not my daughter I don't trust its others who might come her way.

Could the child on the food court have been know the way kids with disabilities look younger than they are. My five year old son with DS could pass for a three year old.
Could the parent have been watching from a distance Dave...trying to teach some independance?
If it was as it seemed, I'd be outraged! Did you see the parents return to pick the child up?
8 - 10 is way too young for ANY CHILD to be left without adult supervision.
Good God what if something happened to the child!! Parents want their heads examined!

Heike Fabig said...

Well, if mum and dad went off shopping, that would not be ok, typical or disabled, boy or girl. But are you sure they were not queuing up somewhere for their food keeping an eye on her?

Tamara said...

As someone else said, if it was as it seemed to be, that doesn't seem to be responsible parenting. I could understand a lesson in independence if she had bought the food by herself and then sat down by herself while someone observed from afar; but that doesn't fit with your description.

The safety reasons have been stated and it is a real and serious risk. Child molestors are certainly the scariest, but what about other situations that she may have had difficulty navigating - some type of event like a small fire that required evacuation of the mall or a power outage - I was stuck in WalMart during tornado warnings with a power outage once. It could be disorienting.

But I guess I don't understand why at least one of the parents would not want to have lunch with their daughter in the mall while shopping together?

While lunch at home on a Sunday afternoon may not always be a time for everyone to sit around the table, I think if we were all out shopping, that would be the time we'd take a break as a family and hang out.

One Sick Mother said...

My children aren't typical, but they are both pretty responsible at almost-9 and almost-11 (and they *look* typical).

With the exception of breakfast (we are not morning people in the OSM household) I rarely leave my children to eat a meal alone in the house, let alone outside of it! This is especially true if only one child is home at the time. I think it is miserable for a child (anyone) to eat alone. Mealtimes are social times and should be enjoyed in company, especially when one is young. Mealtimes are when we communicate and talk about our day and work on our social skills.

When they are adults, there will be plenty of opportunities to eat alone in the mall, miserable, with no-one to share their people-watching observations and a little paranoid, wondering if anyone is watching them.

As for the mall... No WAY would I leave a child to eat alone there. I may leave both kids together while I get my own food or use the bathroom, but I am always nearby. And quite apart from the miserable experience I imagine it is for a child to eat alone in a place like this, most children; -typical or otherwise- won't have the problem solving skills should the unexpected happen; say the juice was spilled or the fire alarm went off, or she was approached by a stranger; -even a well-meaning one.

...and all that is before I go into the safety issues and indeed the legal ones. I don't know about Canada, but some states in the US have a minimum age at which a child can be left "home alone". I assume this also applies to being left out alone in public.

To summarise: I think what those parents did to that child was plain wrong on many levels. Had I been there, I would have seriously considered calling the authorities.

Eileen said...

My first reaction to your blog today was one of indignation - how could any parent do that to a child?

Then I thought about it more and realise that we are in danger of rushing to judgement on a situation we really know nothing about.

What if the girl is in fact older than you thought?
What if someone was watching from a distance to make sure she was OK?
What if she chose to do this because she enjoys the solitude/feels grown up/ whatever!

I certainly would not leave any child of ten alone in a busy and public place like this. But the truth is we don't know if that is what you were seeing.

Most parents are good enough, if not great. Few I believe deliberately put their children in danger (yes, I know some do..)

My 11 year old son is pushing the boundries of his independence. He now goes into the local shops to buy his drink or whatever, while I wait outside. He swims in the pool with his friends while I or his dad read in the spectator gallery. I hope next year he will walk with friends to high school.

Small, small steps but steady ones, where both we and he feel confident (or at least not scared witless!) And with every success comes consolidation and the next tiny step...

Maybe I'm a hopeless optimist but I hope what you saw was a young woman starting to exert her independence and her choices.

FridaWrites said...

I might have the kids sit at a table if it's truly a few steps from me but only when I can keep continuous eye contact.

They're 8 and 11, and I wouldn't let them sit alone at a big food court, especially the younger one.

Maybe I'm overprotective but once something happens you can't undo it.

I do see 11-13 year olds waiting for the bus alone, girls and boys, because middle schools start and end later here. I couldn't allow that either though it must be complicated when both parents work since those schools start close to 9. Kids and even young adults can sometimes be cautious but don't realize just how vulnerable they are. I won't even let my kids ride bikes outside without us--we had some guy try to pick up little boys in our neighborhood a few years ago.

lisa said...

I wouldn't have like it either, Dave. Down syndrome or not, it's not safe to leave a child that age to eat by themselves in a food court. There should at least be an older (teens) sibling there with them. Besides, who wants to eat by themselves? Hopefully the parents were closer than you think, otherwise, they were not being very responsible.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

It appeared to be quite an iffy situation. However, I always try to refrain from judging parents of kids with disabilities - don't we get enough of that? We just don't know all of what was going on there.


Brenda said...

Well, as many others have said, we may not have the full story of what was happening. I would hope the parents were nearby, with at least one of them keeping a careful eye. But as a parent of 3 (2 boys and 1 girl) I can tell you, I would NEVER leave a child of that age alone in a large crowded area. My boys are older now (17 & 21), and my daughter is just about to turn 12. Too young, in my opinion to be left alone. As someone said, I trust her - just not the unknown 'someone's' who may be lurking. My daughter goes with me everywhere - bathroom, food court, doctor's office. Some might think I'm over-protective. But all you have to do is watch the news or read a newspaper. In fact, I still tell my boys everytime they leave the house: "I love you - keep your radar up." I'm a bit of a mother bear where my children are concerned, and if anything ever happened to them that I could have prevented, I would never be able to forgive myself.

Anonymous said...

When I was in grade 2 (7 years old) I used to take public transit home from school.... all by myself... or so I thought. Many years later I found out that the bus route was a perfect loop, the driver was fully aware of who I was, which stop I needed to get off at, as well as that my father would be getting on the same bus on his way home from work two loops after I got on from school. It was perfect. (and about 25 years ago) My parents knew that I needed to feel that I had my independence, and they allowed me to do so in a safe, controlled way.

I'm hoping that we have a similar case here.... I'm really really hoping!

kvanryzin said...

I won't judge the parents. Parenting is tough enough and we need to help each other out.
I will throw out another argument though. Was that girl with down syndrome actually safer than most kids since she was "more noticeable" to people? She didn't blend in like a typical child does.

Unknown said...

My first thought was that the parents just got her food first, she sat down to nibble, while the parents went to order their own lunch. I would also assume that her parents were close by, keeping their eye on her from their line.

I certainly hadn't even considered that her parents would drop her off to eat lunch alone while they shopped and went out of sight, until I read the comments here.

I probably would have watched her until her parents came back to her, to ensure that she was safe.

I'd say that a child could manage to eat like this and wait for her parents if she was capable to sit in her seat, eat quietly and not run around the food court jumping on the tables.

Catherine said...

I would not leave my 11 year old son alone for more than a few minutes at the food court. I would let him have a seat while I got something for myself, but would be watching him even as I waited for my food.

I guess high school is when I would feel I could leave them alone, but it is rare that I leave even my older kids somewhere like that. They almost always have another person, a friend or sibling with them in such situations. I cannot think of a case when I left even the oldest ones in that situtation.

So, I think it was natural for Joe to feel uneasy. The DS is not even the issue here.

CJ from California said...

To me DS is an issue. Predators seek out the weakest or most vulnerable... not that a typical 8-10 year old would not be vulnerable in this situation as well, but to a predator, a child with an intellectual disability might be considered an "easy" target.

I have an almost 12 year old son and a 19 year old son. I'm very big on independence and safety skills. With a police officer for a dad and a social worker mom, he is well aware but not invincible.

I would have enjoyed eating with my child first and then shopping.

Dave and Joe,

Your instincts were correct.

Anonymous said...

There's just not enough information here to judge those parents. Many DS kids I know are far smaller than their age would suggest, this girl could have been 14. And how do you know the parents weren't just out of your sight, watching everything this young lady did? Perhaps this was the "final exam" on her test of independence.
I also believe in giving children wings instead of leashes. My 9 yr, has been raised to be capable, with plenty of guidance in making choices and examining situations. No, I would not hesitate to let him eat alone in a food court if that was his preference. Sometimes freedom is the sweetest taste of all...

Anonymous said...

It depends on the parent and the child. I would not leave my 10 year old son alone in a food court. In January, my husband left him on a playground at an outlet mall while he went into a store nearby from which he could see our son through the window. Husband says he walked through the store to the back then came back out to the playground. In that time, son had fallen off the slide and broken his wrist and security police were there looking for the parents. My husband is not a neglectful parent. He just doesn't worry so about what terrible thing might happen. There's a lot of freedom in that. And it's not "bad". It's just different...from me.

Shan said...

When I was a kid things were different, but even then my parents wouldn't have left me at that age. Those were the Clifford Olsen years.

I am a big fan of the buddy system. Two 12 year old girls are WAY safer than one. I'd let them roam the mall alone, with me in the same building and with pre-arranged meeting places and times, but any younger than 12, I don't think so.

After all, 14 year old girls go missing every year, from malls, bus routes, parking lots, walking trails.

I can understand all the other commenters saying 'those parents might have been watching from the queue - it might have been an exercise in independence' but personally I question the need for a child that young to learn to be in a food court by themselves for any length of time. That's not teaching independence so much as it's teaching carelessness.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

When my daughter was about that age we had lunch together at a mall food court. It wasn't particularly large or crowded. I left her eating there to go to the bathroom, which was right there, and when I came back there were people staring daggers at me. Couldn't figure out why, except that at age 9 she looked about 6 or 7. She was oblivious to their staring, of course. I wanted to go over to their table and say "SHE'S NINE YEARS OLD FOR PETE'S SAKE" but of course I couldn't.

At nineteen, she went into the ranger's station at a park with me, while I went to the bathroom (I seem to do that a lot) and someone saw her there alone and asked if she was lost.

Some people really do look much younger than they really are. I tell my kid that some day she won't mind so much.

Ssejors said...

I'm with Shannon. I don't see for a second why that child should have been left alone. My Hubs and I have a typical 11 year old and a 1 year old with DS. Now, at 11, Our oldest is allowed to go purchase what he wants from which ever food court he prefers, but he certainly would not be left to eat alone, or even wander the mall alone. 11 year old boys really have no attention spans or sense of time. So I honestly wouldn't be confident to trust him alone for any period of time in a big mall. There are too many weirdos.

Now, if her parents were just in line getting their OWN food, That's absolutely WRONG, STUPID, RUDE and bad parenting. There are two parents for a reason. One can wait with the kids and the other can get food. Swap out. There is Absolutely NO excuse for Any child between 8 - 10 to be sitting alone in a food court. If there is only one parent, then everyone should be eating at the same place so as to AVOID having a child sitting alone. GAWD it takes mere seconds to grab a child's hand and take them off somewhere. Michael Dunahee was kidnapped at a park during a softball game that his father was playing in and his mother was watching. A PLAYGROUND! Not a busy, over crowded mall.
And Children with DS are quite often roughly HALF of there age in mental development. So she is an 9 year old who is really just a 5 year old mentally. So she is even LESS capable of handling strangers and or Strange situations.

I'm furious to think that someone would have left their Daughter alone in a food court. DS or not. There are so many cases of child neglect and awful parenting that go on EVERYDAY and it makes me just so sick to my stomach.

And how sad and lonely for her to have to sit and eat by her self. When I was a kid, I hated to see people eating alone in restaurants. I didn't understand why anyone should have to eat alone. It used to make me cry. My mom had to reassure me that, it was probably a gentleman on a business trip stopping to have a bite to eat and stretch his legs after a long drive, or some other random story to make me feel better. I always wanted to go eat with them... LOL

Andrea Shettle said...

A complete non-sequitor to the main focus of the blog post, but,

Speaking as someone who LIKES eating alone, I just felt compelled to remind that not everyone necessarily dislikes eating alone. It's not necessarily lonely. I can see where it might feel that way for an extroverted person who really NEEDS to be with other people for large chunks of time in order to feel fulfilled. And I can also see where that could be lonely for any child, who does usually need more personal contact than most adults, whether they're extroverted or not.

But for some of us introverted adults, old enough to be on our own (I'm 39, I hope that counts ;-) ) ... no, I don't avoid all social situations. I do appreciate chances to meet new people or to spend time with people I know. I enjoy spending a certain amount of time in social situations. But, usually I don't relax well when I'm around people. To really and truly relax, unwind, let go of stress, feel connected with myself and the world, I need to be immersed in the world of words -- either reading a really great book or maybe writing something. (Or, if I want to completely vegetate, then there's always television! But print words by preference). If I didn't have chances to read (or perhaps write), then not only would I have little energy left to focus on my work but I also would have less energy for socialization!

This means I very much value having a certain amount of time--in fact, in comparison to most extroverts, a great deal of it--alone. It gives me a chance to catch up on my reading or to think, or just recuperate my energy.

So if you ever see me eating alone somewhere, then, no, please don't feel sorry for me. Feel glad for me that I have managed to carve out this precious time for myself. Or, if your children feel sad for me, teach them that it takes all types of people to have a rich, diverse world. Some people like your child may really enjoy being around people all the time. But other people need a different balance between social time and large chunks of alone time. So a person who is on their own COULD be feeling sad because of it ... OR, they could actually be very glad that they had this chance to immerse themselves in that wonderful book they're reading.

Jay said...

As an adult with disabilities without children, but who works as a social worker/pastor with children of all abilities, I think the complex considerations about assumptions as well as parental responsibilities are very important questions.

What I wonder about is the role of Disablism (Ableism in the US, Disability Discrimination elsewhere). There are many ways this *could* be entering this situation:
-Parents potential belief that a child with DS is not attractive to predators
-Parents potential assumption that having DS would lead her not to get into the typical trouble that even a responsible youth in a shopping mall could find
-The assumptions about whether or not this young person enjoys shopping or eating in a food court
-Some parents abandon kids with disabilities for long periods of time, or forever. While there is not even reason to believe this is happening, it does happen to lots of kids.

That said, I also have given some thought to the questions about age assumptions. If the person is indeed old and mature enough for sitting in a mall alone, I do still wonder if she is feeling included and was given choices.

Ssejors said...

Thank you Andrea!
I really appreciate your post. That makes me see things in a whole new light. I myself truly enjoy a quiet peaceful cup of coffee now and then without any kids, specially as a parent, it is rare to find time alone. I think part of why I always felt bad for people eating alone is that I had a large family. I lived on a street where My family lived next to my grandparents, next to my great uncle, next to my Cousin and their kids, next to another cousin and their kids. I think all told there were about 6 or 7 houses in a row and I was related to everyone who lived in those houses. Often we would have huge family dinners where everyone got together, if not everyone then at least immediate family and my grandparents. Can you say gong show. So I suppose that made me see being alone as a bad thing. I see it as a priceless gift now! LOL

Ettina said...

When I was 10, I took the city bus on my own from school to my father's work. Many of my classmates also took the bus to their homes or wherever they were going as well. Personally, I'd say it was probably not a good idea for me to be taking the bus at that age, since I'm autistic and even at 19 I find it hard to navigate by bus, but I did OK. I certainly would have been fine eating alone in the mall, although maybe a bit lonely (but not if I had a book).
And in my experience, it's hard to judge the ages of DS kids, since they're so small. At 5 they look about 2-3 years old. So that girl could very well have been 14 or so rather than 8-10.
However, her having DS means you can't necessarily judge by her chronological age. There's a lot of variability with DS, there are some kids who aren't that different in maturity from most kids and then there are teenagers who are as independent as toddlers. It really depends on the individual.
Personally, my conclusion is that you really don't know enough about that kid to know if it was OK for her parents to leave her like that. If it were me, I'd just have watched and intervened if I saw a problem.
As for dangerous people, they'd only be able to kidnap a kid in a public place if the kid came willingly, and the parents should know if their child is likely to obey a command to wait at the table for them & not go off with someone else.

Anonymous said...

I think we do a disservice to kids when we don't give them responsibility, and especially kids with disabilities. As a child with a well-controlled mental illness, I know it was difficult for my parents, but they allowed me as much freedom as possible and helped me see myself as someone who was in charge of my own life. At a mall, I would have asked my parents to sit alone at a table. They would probably have sat somewhere close enough that they could see me, but far away enough that I felt like I was on my own. I was frequently allowed to ride my bike the two miles to the store, beginning at age 8.

I wonder if you aren't assuming that this girl had been abandoned when, in fact, she was reveling in her own self-sufficiency.

I mean, it's possible that some of these other parents are in the right in this case. I am not a parent and I don't know what I'd do with my own child. But I do know that my parents gave me a great gift when they allowed me so much freedom. Their trust allowed me to develop into a person who trusts herself and can take care of herself despite a fairly severe mental illness.

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